This piece was originally published in Multichannel News.
Ever since the Titanic sank, the U.S. government has regulated the airwaves within its borders. After the Titanic’s distress signal was drowned out by amateur radio operators, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, putting an end to the era of a “cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard,” as the Supreme Court described it. Now that the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority is set to expire, Congress must once again cut through the noise to find a path forward for America’s wireless future.
Given the inherent scarcity of airwaves, or “spectrum,” federal intervention made sense to prevent a tragedy of the commons — or tragic shipwrecks. Since 1934, the FCC has governed commercial and other non-federal uses of spectrum, while the Department of Commerce has governed federal use. But it wasn’t until 1993 that Congress gave the FCC the authority to auction spectrum licenses: the right to transmit wireless signals at particular frequencies. This introduced market forces into the process and helped turn the page on the arbitrary bureaucratic decision-making that predated auctions. Since 1994, the FCC has conducted over 100 spectrum auctions, raising more than $200 billion in revenue.
Periodically, Congress must renew the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum. Given the agency’s history as an instrumental player in America’s leadership in wireless innovation, one might think this should be a formality for Congress. But very little is simple in Washington these days, and the FCC’s expiring authority has created an opportunity for various stakeholders to jockey for position.
Click here to read the full piece in Multichannel News.